Nexus S vs iPhone 4

It's time for a true clash of the titans, with Google's flagship Android phone, the Nexus S, taking on Apple's iPhone 4 in a battle for precious pocket space.

Flora Graham
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We always love to see a good scrap between Apple and Google, even if we do have to start it ourselves. The Nexus S, made by Samsung, is Google's latest flagship smart phone to show off its Android operating system. We thought we'd pit it against the iPhone 4 to see how it stacks up.

The screen: Retina versus contour

Apple has dubbed the iPhone 4 screen a 'retina display' because it punches you right in the retina with its beauty. At the risk of sounding like Steve Jobs, the incredible 960x640-pixel resolution is like nothing we've seen before or since.

The iPhone 3GS had a great-looking display -- or so we thought. But going back to the 3GS after using the iPhone 4 makes it look shockingly blurry in comparison. Similarly, swapping back to the iPhone 4 after using another phone is like staring into the limpid pools of your lover's eyes. That's what having 326 pixels per inch does to you.

The iPhone's 3.5-inch screen isn't the biggest in the business, though. It keeps the phone from being too gigantic, but we're getting used to surfing the Web and watching videos on 4-inch screens like the one on the Samsung Galaxy S, or even the 4.3-inch screen of the HTC Desire HD.

Google and Samsung have come up with a catchy name for the screen on the Nexus S. They're calling it the 'contour display', because it has a very slight curve that makes it more comfortable to hold the phone against your face. The curve is barely noticeable in real life, but we can vouch that it does seem to make the phone more pleasant to hold against the cheek, although that could be merely psychological.

The Nexus S' screen is also of the Super AMOLED variety, which means it's eye-searingly bright, while using less power than an LED display. The 'Super' part of the name relates to the fact that, unlike a typical AMOLED screen (like the one on the Google Nexus One), a Super AMOLED display is less reflective in sunshine. We were very impressed by the Super AMOLED screen on the Galaxy S. In bright sunlight, it remained remarkably visible, while the Nexus One's screen was rendered totally opaque.

The Nexus S' screen is no slouch in terms of resolution either. Its WVGA resolution is on a par with that of most of the best smart phones. But compare the numbers to the iPhone 4 and you'll spot the difference. The Nexus S' resolution is 480x800 pixels, resulting in a density of 235 pixels per inch. It doesn't look bad at all, but it doesn't have the photo-like resolution of the iPhone 4.

In this clash of the titans, the screen is a powerful weapon on both sides. If you want to stretch out your browser and videos on a big screen, we don't think you'll be disappointed with the Nexus S. But the iPhone 4's retina display is simply unbeatable for clarity.

Winner: iPhone 4

The design: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

The iPhone 4's body is slick and glassy, but it has some serious flaws. For a start, it's arguably not as good-looking as the iPhone 3G, or even the original iPhone. It's also not particularly comfortable to hold or use compared to the most ergonomic phones, such as the Palm Pre. And it's impossible to tell whether it's upside down or back to front unless you can see it, so you can't fire it up as quickly as other phones when you pull it out of a pocket.

The glass front and back look futuristic and fabulous, and its137g weight makes the phone feel solid and well made. But, without much of bezel, the iPhone feels like it could shatter with a short drop. There's also evidence that the glass back can crack if you use a slide-on case.

And then there's the death grip. Without a doubt, the iPhone 4 is rubbish at making and receiving phone calls, and its casing seems to be the culprit. The iPhone has always been terrible at making calls, but it's so wonderfully, life-changingly good at everything else, we've been willing to forgive it. If your calls are more important to you than Facebook or any of the umpteen other ways of keeping in touch with people, the iPhone 4 may disappoint, though.

The Nexus S has the advantage in this battle -- it's not been released yet, so we can't report on how it will stand up to being tossed around by millions of uncaring hands. But, judging by the Galaxy S, which the Nexus S resembles, as well as our brief hands-on with Google's latest handset, we can make some educated guesses.

The Nexus S feels surprisingly light at 129g. That's partly because Samsung's eschewed metal in favour of a plastic case. The end result is that the Nexus S feels decidedly less fancy than the iPhone 4, although we reckon it would be more capable of surviving a little drop. A slight bump on the bottom of the case at the rear is another indication that the Nexus S prioritises function over form.

Still, we prefer the Nexus S to the Galaxy S because its appearance isn't quite so reminiscent of the iPhone 3G and 3GS. The Galaxy S felt derivative, while the Nexus S looks more individual. That's what we want to see in a £550 smart phone. The curved screen, although subtle, also makes the Nexus S look unique.

We can't vouch for the signal reception on the Nexus S until we thoroughly test it. But the iPhone 4's case is a proven liability in this regard, so the hammer of justice comes down against it. (Click through the gallery at the top of the page to see some photos comparing the Nexus S and iPhone 4.) 

Winner: Nexus S

Apps and features: Smarter than your average phones

We could, and often do, argue for hours about the features of Android as they compare to those of Apple's iOS. Both platforms are at the point where it would take a million monkeys working at a million typewriters to list all their features, and we are not those monkeys. But, in a nutshell, both platforms do pretty much everything you could want them to. There are exceptions, of course -- you may not find they meet your specific enterprise security requirements, for example. But, essentially -- and barring the fact that the iPhone struggles to make phone calls -- both the Nexus S and iPhone are smarter than most people.

Apps, however, are another story. The iPhone has access to the Apple App Store, and it is mighty. It was the first app store, and it's still the best and most jam-packed, offering everything you could possibly want, as well as plenty of stuff you don't. The App Store has its flaws, but it's had time to iron out most of the main issues. You can buy apps easily on your phone or on your computer, and it's simple to share apps via links that open directly in the App Store. The sorting and filtering systems do a reasonably good job of getting the best apps to the top of the pile, and most of us know a few friends with an iPhone who can recommend apps we might like.

The Android Market has its strengths too, especially for developers. The fact that it's so open is the biggest one, since you can write an app and see it hit the Market within hours, rather than days, weeks or never at all. Apps are rarely banned or blocked, and it's cheap to become an Android developer. Android apps also get more access to the phone's hardware, and the option to multi-task.

Unfortunately, that openness doesn't necessarily benefit the average user who's tapping away on their Nexus S. The Android Market is like the Wild West, containing a mix of the best, worst, smartest and dumbest apps, jumbled up in a way that can be hard to sort through. And there's no way to buy apps on your computer and then easily sync them to your phone, although that may be on its way in a later version of Android.

There's no reason why the Android Market can't be just as good as the App Store, but it's not. Google just needs to improve the Market to help users find and share the cream of the app crop.

Winner: iPhone 4


Either of these phones would be welcome beneath our Christmas tree, especially since they're both insanely expensive. But it remains as true as ever that Android is more flexible than iOS, while iOS is easier to use. You can argue that's not the case if you like -- and we hope you do sound off in the comments section below -- but we have irrefutable proof. We gave one half of our parents iPhones, and it made them happy. We gave the other half Android phones, and it made them cry. That's an actual, parental-abuse-based fact.

But then there's the cold, hard and painful fact that the iPhone 4 is rubbish at the crucial task of making phone calls. If missed calls won't crush your world, the iPhone 4 will prove a pricey but pleasant treat. If you're happy to spend some time getting to grips with a smart phone that will do everything under the sun and look good while doing it, we're almost certain the Nexus S won't disappoint.

It's closer than a race between conjoined twins, but, like in Highlander, when it comes to winners in this contest, there can be only one. Based on the criteria we have set, the overall winner is the iPhone 4.

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The iPhone 4 has glass on its back, as well as the front, while the Nexus S has a lighter, curvier plastic case. Both look good in a space-monolith kind of way.
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The Nexus S is 1.5mm thicker than the iPhone 4, but 8g lighter. It feels much bigger than the iPhone because of its larger screen.
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The Nexus S' home screens can be filled with widgets and shortcuts, while the iPhone 4 relies on a simple grid of icons.

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